Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Putting the "Design" 
in Your Web Design

By Jennifer Dunne

2002, Jennifer Dunne 


If you're a working author, you need a web site.  In today's Internet-based society, where research is equated with typing keywords into a search engine, you can't afford not to have one.  But just as you'd never send a manuscript to an editor that was filled with typos, on ragged paper stained with coffee, so too your web site acts as a first impression to people who may never meet you. They will judge whether or not to buy your books or hire you to write articles based on what they see on your web site.

Are you nervous yet, ready to obsess about yet one more obstacle preventing you from becoming the next J.K. Rowling?  There's no need to worry.  A good web site doesn't require high-tech animated videos, the latest javascript plugins, or a dedicated staff of technical support people, although those are nice if you can get them.  What it does require, however, is a well thought out design.

I can hear your complaints now.  "But isn't that why I'm paying a web designer?"  "I'm using a template that's already got the design included."  "I don't know anything about web design."  Let me rephrase those questions in real world terms.  When you buy clothes, the cost of a fashion designer is included in the price -- but you still have a personal style of what you wear, don't you?  And using a design template is the same as buying a house that's a no-option double-wide modular home.  If you had to visit someone's home, would you rather visit a sterile prefab or a lovingly detailed Arts & Crafts style bungalow?  And finally, you probably don't know how to design an automobile, but you know in what style you want to be seen driving around.  That's all the level of programming knowledge you need to know in order to design a web site.

Your design plan will consist of answers to the following seven questions.  Based on those answers, you can then go ahead and program it yourself if you have a technical bent.  You can just as easily give the plan to a commercial web designer who will be able to implement it.

Why a web site?

There are only two reasons to have a web site.  You're providing information, or you're selling something.  If you're a self-published author, or you have stacks of book copies you're trying to unload, you'll be selling something.  Make the purchase process as simple and secure as possible, with plenty of technical support for when things go wrong (as they will).  Otherwise, you're going to be providing information, and encouraging people to go somewhere else to actually buy your work.  Make sure your information is worth the time your visitors spend reading it, and that they have a clear path for the next step they need to take.

Who are your customers?

Are you planning on attracting large numbers of first-time visitors?  Repeat visitors?  Secondary sales?  If you only have one book, you'll need to maximize the number of visitors in order to make more sales.  Some methods of doing this are maximizing your links from other diverse sites, participating in banner exchanges, and sponsoring contests.  If you have books coming out every few months, you'll want to give people a reason to return, so that they'll know about your newest release (and hopefully go out and buy it).  Change your content frequently.  Secondary sales are things like journals and workbooks to go along with nonfiction books, or maps, artwork, and reference books that elaborate upon a fantasy world.  To serve these customers, develop your site with many cohesive references, so that regardless of the item of interest the visitor first looks up, a range of complementary products are suggested that may also be of interest.  Which brings us to the next question.

What do your visitors want?

Note, this question does not ask what you will offer them.  Rather, it asks what they want.  The answer to this question should be a statement of values.  At the most basic level, your visitors want to satisfy an urge, or lessen pain.  Figuring out how to tap into the most common motivators will increase your site's usefulness and appeal, translating into more sales.  At the very least, provide excerpts to relieve net-surfers' boredom.

What one thing will your site do?

This is your web site's "killer application."  If it is a true killer application, this will drive most of the traffic to your web site, and people will return over and over again to use it.  The Forward Motion community at Holly Lisle's web site is a perfect example of a killer application.  Some other applications are comprehensive and current market listings, scrupulously detailed historical references and timelines, and interactive gaming.  Once you find your killer application, everything else at your site should be designed to support it.

How will you identify your site?

There are five different ways to brand your site, so that visitors know instantly whether or not they're still on the site.  The next time they visit it, they're more likely to remember a strongly branded site.  Although you don't have to use all five elements, the more you use, the stronger the impact your branding has.  You can have a character or mascot associated with your site.  (An example of this is the Simon character on mysimon.com.)  You can use common colors.  You can include a logo, either as part of the heading of each page or as the wallpaper behind the text on each page.  You can use common text or typefaces.  And you can include thematic motifs.  This is the aspect of design that most web designers will focus on, so be sure to take advantage of their knowledge and suggestions if you're hiring a designer.  If you're doing it yourself, pick up a book like The Non-Designer's Web Book by Robin Williams and John Tollet that will tell you all you need to know in order to fake a background in graphic design.

Who is your competition?

The last two questions are closely related.  The first recognizes that there are billions of people surfing the web every day, but very few of those will actually visit your web site.  What sites are they visiting instead?  Include sites both within your industry, of other authors or publishers, and outside your industry, such as sites for movies and TV.

Why is your site different?

This final question summarizes the design.  For each of the sites you have identified as a competitor, list why your site is better.  Your site must provide additional function, be easier to use, or cost less, and in a perfect world, do all three.

Now that you know how you want your site identified, and what elements and applications are required to make it more appealing to your target customers than the competitors' sites, it's a trivial matter to turn that design into a working web site.  Take your list to a commercial web designer, or program it yourself with the help of simple lessons and tutorials such as the ones at www.htmlgoodies.com.

If you'd like an example of how the elements of this design plan work in a real life implementation, consider my web site, www.jenniferdunne.com.  It is providing information, to both new and repeat visitors.  I included persistent navigation, to find the information desired, and a "what's new" page to highlight the changes to the site.  I also included a page showing all the ways to order my books -- with four publishers of both ebooks and paperbacks, I need to minimize confusion and the opportunity to lose potential sales.  My visitors have varied interests, usually something related to romance, fantasy, or the occult, and I offer them access to the research material on which my books are based.  My "killer application" is an interactive tarot reading, performed by a character from one of my books.  (It's not really a killer application, but I'm working on that.)  The site uses a common set of colors and gemstone graphics, as well as using the same typeface for all buttons and page headings.  It competes against other authors' sites and nonfiction research and community sites in my target subjects.  The primary additional function it offers is a sense of whimsy and fun -- it's set up to describe "tours" to different worlds complete with pictures -- but it's also clearly laid out and simple to navigate, and completely free.

I told you there was no reason for you to worry.  If you answered the questions and built your own design plan, you're already more than half way to having an attractive, effective web site.